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A man holds a weight plate.

Many people take a “divide and conquer” approach to fitness: Lift weights to build their muscles; jump on the treadmill to work the heart and lungs. But shouldn’t it be possible to work everything with a single supercharged, all-purpose workout? Indeed. Cue the complex.

Complexes have been heralded by strength and conditioning experts as a prime example of “hybrid” strength-and-cardio training. Wil Fleming, CSCS, director of sport performance for Force Fitness and Performance in Bloomington, Ind., describes them as “a group of two or more big-ticket strength-training moves performed back-to-back and done with the same piece of equipment, without letting go of the weight or resting between exercises.” The idea is to create an intense workout that taxes the entire body.

Although they’re primarily considered “metabolic” workouts (designed to burn fat and improve cardiovascular conditioning), complexes also build muscle and strength. “Complexes achieve what 95 percent of the population wants from a fitness program,” says Robert dos Remedios, strength and conditioning coach for the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., and author of Cardio Strength Training. Namely, improved body composition (more muscle, less fat), better work capacity (the ability do more in less time; great for sports performance), and improved energy and vitality outside the gym.

Complexes are efficient, and there’s a version for everyone, making them a viable option as a standalone workout when you’re pressed for time or as an intense full-body warm-up when you’re less rushed.

Though they can be tough, complexes aren’t just for the über-fit, Fleming clarifies. A beginner might start with just two exercises for five reps each before taking a two-minute rest. “But I could hit a high-level athlete with eight reps each of dead lifts, Romanian dead lifts, rows, cleans, front squats, overhead presses and lunges,” he says. “Complexes are as hard or as easy as you want them to be.”

The Do-Anywhere Complex

The following workout, designed by sports performance expert Wil Fleming, CSCS, requires only a place to stand and a single heavy object — such as a weight plate or kettlebell. But anything heavy, sturdy and grippable will work — even a rock or milk jug.

Before you begin, make sure you can comfortably perform each individual exercise in the complex with at least the amount of weight you’re planning to use during the workout. Choose your weight based on what you think you can handle for the toughest exercise in the complex (for one person, that might be the swing; for someone else, the push press). That will probably mean you wind up using a lot less weight on some exercises than you’re used to. “That’s normal,” says Robert dos Remedios. “The goal is to get your heart rate way up, not to lift maximum weight.”

With your chosen weight in hand, it’s go time: Perform all six exercises, back-to-back, for five to eight reps each, without resting or putting the weight down. Perform three to four full circuits, resting 90 seconds between rounds. Feel manageable? Grab a heavier weight plate, a bigger rock or a larger jug, and gradually work up to completing all rounds with just 60 seconds between efforts.

(To see the moves in action, visit The Do-Anywhere Complex (Video).)

The Workout

1. Swing

A man performs a swing with a weight plate.

How to do it:

• Stand with your feet about one-and-a-half to two shoulder widths apart, toes pointed slightly out.

• Hold the outside edges of the weight plate with your arms straight and hands at 3 and 9 o’clock.

• Maintaining the natural curve in your lower back, bend your knees slightly and lean forward about 45 degrees, hinging at the hips and allowing the plate to hang between your knees.

• Keeping your weight on your heels and your arms straight, simultaneously drive your hips forcefully forward and straighten your knees, allowing the weight to swing forward and up until your hands are slightly above shoulder height.

• As the weight swings down and back to its original position, allow your knees to bend and your torso to hinge forward

• Repeat for five to eight repetitions.

What it does: “The swing ramps up the metabolic demands of the complex right from the start,” says Fleming. “It requires lots of action from the entire back side of the body.”

2. Sumo Dead Lift

A man performs a sumo dead lift with a weight plate.

How to do it:

• Maintaining the same stance as in the previous exercise, shift your grip so you’re holding the top edge of the weight plate with both hands, thumbs toward you. Allow the plate to hang down toward the floor.

• Keeping the natural arch in your lower back, simultaneously lean forward at the hip joints and bend your knees until the low edge of the weight plate taps the floor.

• Drive down through your heels and return to the starting position.

• Repeat for five to eight repetitions.

What it does: “The wide stance ensures the focus of the exercise remains on the glutes, an area that many people have trouble activating,” says Fleming. “Keep your chest up and your eyes facing directly forward, rather than craning your neck and looking up.”

3. Bent-Over Row

A man performs a bent-over row with a weight plate.

How to do it:

• With your feet shoulder-width apart, grip the weight plate at 9 and 3 o’clock.

• Preserving the curve in your lower back and keeping your head and neck neutral, bend your knees slightly and lean forward at the hips until your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Allow the plate to hang straight downward.

• Keeping your lower body rigid and your lower back in its natural arch, simultaneously pull your shoulder blades together and pull the weight plate up until it touches your abdomen.

• Lower the weight under control.

• Repeat for five to eight repetitions.

What it does: “Keep your tempo controlled, both on the lifting and the lowering phase,” Fleming notes. “This exercise is great for your posture.”

4. Goblet Front-Squat

A man performs a goblet front squat with a weight plate.

How to do it:

• Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out.

• Holding the weight plate horizontally with your hands at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions, curl it close to your body and rest its back edge on your upper chest.

• Keeping your back in its natural arch and your torso as upright as possible, squat down until your hips are below your knees (assuming you can achieve this depth without breaking form; otherwise, stay above that point).

• Keeping your knees tracking over your feet, drive down through your heels, and return to the starting position.

• Repeat for five to eight repetitions.

What it does: “The ‘rack’ position [where you hold the weight on your upper chest] is actually more comfortable than it looks,” says Fleming. “Just grab the plate and squeeze it in tight to the front of your body, forearms pulled toward one another. This position helps with core activation and posture, and can help improve your form in all other types of squats as well.”

5. Push Press

A man performs a push press with a weight plate.

How to do it:

• Start in the same position as the previous exercise.

• Keeping your torso upright, bend your knees slightly.

• In one fluid motion, drive through your hips, knees and ankles as if you were trying to jump, and press the weight straight overhead until your elbows are completely locked out.

• Lower the weight back to the rack position, and repeat for five to eight repetitions.

What it does: “I like to include exercises that use as much muscle mass as possible,” says Fleming. “And the push press, which uses the upper and lower body at once, fits that bill nicely. The leg drive also takes some of the pressure off the shoulders — good for people who have shoulder problems.” But, he advises, skip it if you experience joint pain.

6. Diagonal Chop

A man performs a diagonal chop with a weight plate.

How to do it:

• Stand with your feet at shoulder width, weight plate hanging down, and hands at 9 and 3 o’clock.

• Rotate your shoulders and hips to the left, bending the hips and knees so the plate is outside your left knee.

• Keeping your arms straight, rotate your body forcefully to the right, straightening your knees and raising the plate in a diagonal arc in front of you, finishing with your arms overhead and your torso rotated to your right as far as possible.

• Lower the weight, under control, along the same path back to the starting position.

• Repeat five to eight times going from left to right, then repeat on the other side.

What it does: “Consciously resist the rotation of your torso,” advises Fleming. “That really fires up the core.”

Strength Strategy

So, you want to strike out and try your own version of this versatile, challenging workout. Keep these things in mind when putting together a complex, whether you’re using a barbell, some dumbbells or just your body weight.

Tough stuff first. “If you’re going to include explosive exercises [moves that require you to accelerate the weight quickly, like swings or high pulls] put them first,” advises Wil Fleming, CSCS, director of sport performance for Force Fitness and Performance in Bloomington, Ind. “You’re going to be too tired to perform them with good form later on in the complex.”

Seek balance. Balance the entire sequence of exercises, including at least one pulling exercise for every pushing movement, and at least one lower-body movement for every upper-body movement. “The point is to get a full-body metabolic challenge,” says Robert Dos dos Remedios, author of Cardio Strength Training, “Not to exhaust one particular muscle group.”

Go with the flow. The sequence of the exercises should flow together seamlessly. You don’t want to have to lift the weight overhead for your first exercise, then drop it all the way to the floor for your second, then lift it overhead again for the third movement. “One great method is to start with the bar overhead and work your way down to the floor, or vice versa,” says Fleming. For example, you might do push presses, then front squats, then bent-over rows, then straight-leg Romanian dead lifts.

(To see the moves in action, visit The Do-Anywhere Complex (Video).)

This article has been updated. It originally appeared as “The Simplicity Complex” in the March 2011 issue of Experience Life.

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